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How ‘Santa Claus’ Saved Christmas in Chicago

City Treasurer Ernst Hummel distributes checks to municipal employees on Christmas Eve.City Treasurer Ernst Hummel distributes checks to municipal employees on Christmas Eve.

For Chicago’s municipal workers, the Christmas of 1904 was shaping up to be a sorry one indeed. The city was so broke that Chicago’s 6,000 municipal employees – firemen, policemen, clerks, accountants, and even the mayor himself – learned they would not be paid their December salaries. But three days before Christmas, just as the public servants were resigning themselves to a holiday with undecked halls and empty stockings, Santa Claus himself emerged from City Hall to save the workers’ Christmas. Well – kind of.

Not long after 30 million people flocked to Chicago for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, the burgeoning city found itself in a deep financial depression thanks to the financial panic of the same year. The city was beginning to climb itself out of the depression by the turn of the century, but was continually struggling to pay its bills and make payroll.

Luckily, the city had a treasurer with a reputation for honesty and fairness: Ernst Hummel. Hummel was a German immigrant who came to Chicago as young man and made a fortune in the brewing business. As a boy, he was an apprentice of the Swiss beer baron Frederick Wacker, whose son Charles went on to become one of Chicago’s great boosters. Hummel served as an alderman in Hegewisch from 1890-1893. In 1897, the affable and popular Hummel was elected to the post of treasurer.

Ernst HummelErnst Hummel

But in Chicago politics, likeability only gets you so far. As 1904 drew to a close, the city’s coffers were rattling empty, city workers were threatening to riot over their unpaid salaries, and government had run out of options for obtaining the necessary funds. Desperate to quell the unrest, the city sought permission from the Illinois Supreme Court to use funds earmarked for water improvement to pay workers – but the Illinois Supreme Court denied this last-ditch effort on Dec. 22. A Chicago Tribune headline that day moaned, “Hope Is Almost Gone.”

With his back to the wall, the next day Treasurer Hummel launched an effort save the workers’ Christmas by borrowing the necessary money – $600,000, equivalent to more than $15 million today – on his own from Chicago banks, with a promise that the city would pay 5 percent interest on the loans. The Tribune’s breathless account, which termed the city’s lawyers “hobgoblins,” immediately seized the opportunity to cast Hummel as Santa Claus himself coming to save the day: “Santa Claus Hummel will borrow the money by noon practically on his individual responsibility, if he fares through the snares which the goblins are spreading for him.”

Thus ‘twas the night before Christmas that Santa Hummel himself handed out pay envelopes to city workers lined up around the building, keeping his office open until every city worker picked up their wages.

After the Christmas Eve rescue, Hummel continued on in public service for a short period, including mounting a failed bid for mayor. He continued to run his brewery, South Chicago Brewing, until 1917. He died at the age of 90 in 1933, and later that year, a square at Indianapolis Avenue and 100th Street was named Hummel Square in his honor.

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